There’s a quote from Emile Griffith that is the first thing the reader sees when opening Knock Out!, Reinhard Kleist’s exploration of the life of the bisexual Black boxer whose 1960s heyday in the ring is the subject of his newest SelfMadeHero book. “I keep thinking how strange it is. I kill a man, and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and many say this makes me an evil person. To so many people, this is an unforgivable sin.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the thematic heart of what is to follow as Kleist examines the life of a truly remarkable figure from sporting history.
Approaches to graphic biography, of course, can range from dry recounting of established facts to looser accounts that take a more speculative stance on their subjects. While material that sits nearer the second end of that spectrum must take care not to cross the line between capturing the essence of events and outright fiction it usually proves to be a far more accessible read. By crafting narrative from facts rather than simply observing them, it establishes a far more intimate relationship between reader, biographical subject and creator.
Reinhard Kleist is, of course, a creator of great experience in this area having fashioned a number of acclaimed biographical comics published in the UK by SelfMadeHero including Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness, The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft, and Nick Cave: Mercy on Me. In Knock Out! Kleist once again reminds us that the strength of his biographical work is not simply in a graphic re-creation of events but in his skilled ability to use the visual language of the medium to evoke empathy in his audience and emphasise the often grim realities of this particular story.
Kleist tells Griffith’s tale in a series of flashbacks beginning with an event in his later life – a brutal beating after leaving a gay bar that left him hospitalised for some days. Griffith is haunted by the spectre of a pivotal moment from his boxing days; one that Kleist depicts as both shaping and hanging over him in the decades after. In 1962, after a homophobic remark from his upcoming opponent Benny Paret during the fight’s weigh-in, the boxers’ subsequent match led to Paret’s death ten days later from the injuries he sustained in the ring.
Knock Out! is told from the perspective of Griffith making sense of his life in conversation with Paret’s ghost, an apparent manifestation of his guilt-ridden conscience. Kleist’s account looks beyond sport and sexuality to encompass Griffith’s childhood, personal and family relationships, parallel career as a hat designer, and later employment as a prison guard. There are some fascinating visual juxtapositions, not least of which is a contrast between the gentle artistry of the man and the savagery of the ring – a sobering reminder that the same hands which could be used to create things of beauty could also be used to destroy.
Kleist’s inky, loose realism is perfect for a story where the clandestine and the fatalistic play such vital, allied roles. The motion and sense of movement in the fight scenes is almost hypnotic in its ferocity (especially the ominous two-page spread portraying that final deadly blow dealt out by Griffith to Paret). But it’s his visual characterisation of Griffith in later years, broken by self-blame and self-recrimination, that really stands out. Knock Out! may be rooted in a world over half a century behind us but in terms of the attitudes and prejudice that Griffith faced it’s sadly just as relevant and topical as ever. One of the assured highlights of SelfMadeHero’s 2021 publishing schedule.
Reinhard Kleist (W/A), Michael Waaler (T) • SelfMadeHero, £14.99
Also available from Gosh! Comics here
Review by Andy Oliver